Michigan rejects National Guard plan to double size of biggest war training base
An aerial photo of the Combined Arms and Collective Facility, part of an urban warfare training ground at Camp Grayling. | U.S. Army photo by Spc. Alexandria Robinson

NORTHERN MICHIGAN—The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has rejected a proposal that would have more than doubled the size of the U.S. Army National Guard’s largest training facility.

The Michigan DNR announced on April 28 that it had declined a proposed 20-year lease of 162,000 acres of state forest land to expand the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center.

“We appreciate the many comments we received on this proposal and the commitment people have to public lands,” said acting Michigan DNR Director Shannon Lott.

“Public concerns and feedback from Tribal governments, coupled with our own review of the proposal, led us to decide against a 20-year lease on such a significant portion of state-managed land,” Lott said.

The Michigan DNR said in a press release that it has made a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The memo states that the DMVA is able to apply for limited land use permits to conduct exercises on up to 52,000 acres of eligible land.

“The permits would allow the Michigan National Guard to conduct low-impact training on specified areas of land, which would remain open to the public and Tribal members at all times,” the Michigan DNR said in a statement.

“The MOU also provides that the permits will not allow military training to take place in any protected or sensitive habitat areas or within a certain distance of inland lakes and designated trout streams,” the Michigan DNR said.

Those who wish to legally use the land for recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, and camping would still be allowed to do so on land in use by the Michigan National Guard under such a land use permit.

“While the MOU’s framework doesn’t meet the full vision of our original request, we believe it still provides distance and area required for some low-impact training that will help our service members stay safe and successful on a modern battlefield,” said Camp Grayling’s commander Col. Scott Meyers.

“We respect the DNR’s decision to deny our lease request while providing a way forward to help facilitate training capability for those who wear the uniform, and we appreciate the public’s engagement over the last several months, as well as the feedback we received from Tribal governments,” Meyers said.

Camp Grayling sits on land forcibly taken from the Odawa and Ojibwa generations ago and has been a site of controversy for years for local residents, mainly due to environmental concerns.

Thanks to Camp Grayling, local residents have had to deal with nearby bodies of water being polluted with PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances). PFAS exposure has been linked to higher rates of certain cancers, decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, and other health issues.

While the U.S. military first reported PFAS contamination at the site in 2016, PFAS-containing firefighting foam has been used there for decades, as reported by the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Camp Grayling is also a very popular training site for private contractors, police departments, and foreign military units.

In 2020, the Michigan National Guard established the National All-Domain Warfighting Center (NADWC), which encompasses Camp Grayling, the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, the Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township (roughly 27 miles from Detroit), and the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base.

The goal of the NADWC is partially to make National Guard centers more attractive for private contractors and the Department of Defense to test new technologies.

“Ever since we unveiled NADWC, my phone has been ringing off the hook with private industry trying to get into this space,” Meyers said in an interview with DBusiness magazine in July 2022. “And the advantage is that we have a lot of availability and a lot of land for folks to come out here and play,”

“The interest I have as the commander here at Grayling is to try to create an environment where you always have the latest technologies around those war-fighting functions when they’re ready,” Meyers said.

Part of the rationale offered for the proposal to more than double the size of Camp Grayling was to test and improve electronic warfare (EW) technologies, such as hardware and software systems that could be used in correctional facilities and used by law enforcement agencies.

Marines work at the Combined Arms Collective Training Facility in Camp Grayling, Mich., April 25, 2015. | Michigan Army National Guard photo by Sgt. First Class Helen Miller

Such technology could be tested by Michigan law enforcement at the Combined Armed Collective Training Facility, which includes a mock city (complete with over 20 buildings, roads, a tunnel/sewer system, a school, a church, etc.) where police could practice urban warfare scenarios.

As well, Camp Grayling houses the Shawono Center, a 40-bed detention facility for male juveniles between the ages of 12 and 21, most of whom have been convicted of sex or drug crimes. It is among the worst facilities in the United States in terms of preventing sex abuse against juveniles.

In January 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report on sexual victimization at U.S. juvenile detention facilities. It showed that 27.3% of youths housed at Shawono reported being sexually victimized either by another youth or by a staff member. And based on the upper bound percentage, 21.9% of youth reported “sexual misconduct with force” committed by a staff member.

Foreign military units mostly train at Camp Grayling during Northern Strike exercises, which are held bi-annually in January and August. These exercises are massive in scale and encompass the land allotted to Camp Grayling, as well as the airspace allotted to the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.

These exercises allow military units from multiple countries to train at the same time.

These Northern Strike exercises have also provided training for Taiwanese military forces, as reported by the Wall Street Journal in February 2023.

This comes at a time when the United States is continuing to provoke the People’s Republic of China into a confrontation by deploying troops to Taiwan and increasing the number of U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia.

Camp Grayling is but a playground fit for the most jingoistic war hawks the United States has to offer. A playground where the U.S. military can continue to improve its war and surveillance technologies to be used to uphold U.S. imperialism and quell domestic unrest.

“We’re getting ready to go to war,” said Major General Gregory Vadnais, a Michigan National Guard commander, in an interview with MLive in 2017. “That [is] the business we’re in. It could happen tomorrow.”

“North Korea could go like that,” Vadnais said, snapping his fingers.

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Brandon Chew
Brandon Chew

Brandon Chew is a journalist from northern Michigan.